Wiggins relieved to be out of a Tour he declares 'null and void'

BRADLEY Wiggins admits he no longer believes in what the yellow jersey of the Tour de France represents, but has instead invested his faith in a new generation of clean cyclists.

The Olympic champion yesterday appeared at a press conference in Manchester as a relieved refugee from the Tour's latest doping crisis and declared the 2007 edition of cycling's greatest race as "null and void".

Wiggins, 27, was pulled out of the Tour along with the rest of the Cofidis team after his team-mate, the Italian Cristian Moreni, failed a test for elevated levels of testosterone. But, after a week in which the Tour's pre-race favourite tested positive for blood doping and the race leader was sacked by his team after allegedly misleading them about his whereabouts during training, the Londoner admitted he was "kind of pleased" to have escaped.

He said: "It's been a hectic last 48 hours - Wednesday finishing a seven-and-a-half hour Pyrenean stage, to being told straight away at the finish that we've got to go straight to the police station.

"Then being dragged out of France after being questioned and flown home yesterday. I'm kind of pleased that I'm here now and out of what is going on.

"Watching it on the telly last night there was no regret that I wasn't still there, it's not a nice place to be any more and the whole thing has completely lost credibility. No-one has got any faith in who is in yellow now. I think the whole thing is null and void as far as this year is concerned."

He added: "It's hardened my determination to come through this whole thing and to prove there can be clean winners in this sport. A lot of others I've spoken to in the last 24 hours - I've spoken to Geraint Thomas who's still out there on the Tour de France, and Mark Cavendish, and they're all pretty hacked off as well - still believe that there is a minority out there who are willing to push the boundaries.

"That minority all seem to be over 30 years of age coming toward the end of their careers. I think that shows a generational thing - ten years ago it was rife in the sport and there's a new generation coming through now.

"Unfortunately it's the older guys who were there back in 1998 that are still willing to push the boundaries and see how far they can go without being caught."

But the race goes on and, after three second-place finishes, Frenchman Sandy Casar overcame a crash to win the 18th stage yesterday. The Francaise des Jeux rider outsprinted Belgian Axel Merckx of the T-Mobile team at the end of a 196km breakaway in the 211km stage from Cahors. France's Laurent Lefevre came home third for the Bouygues Telecom team.

Casar was on the brink of pulling out of the race after a dog crossed the road and hit his rear wheel. "I did not see it coming," said Casar. "I thought my day was over. It hurt everywhere, my back, my shoulders."

Spaniard Alberto Contador of the Discovery Channel team retained the overall leader's yellow jersey but lost three seconds to second-placed Cadel Evans of Australia. Contador was surprised by a late acceleration of the peloton and has an advantage of one minute 50 seconds over the Predictor Lotto rider on the eve of the decisive time-trial.

Today's solo effort against the clock from Cognac to Angouleme will decide the winner of the Tour, two days after previous leader Michael Rasmussen was sacked by his Rabobank team. The Dane left the race after the Dutch team found out that he had lied about his training whereabouts.

Only 141 of the original 189 starters took part in yesterday's stage after the Cofidis and Astana teams left the race amid doping scandals. Cofidis quit on Wednesday after Moreni tested positive for the male sex hormone testosterone, one day after Astana had pulled out following Alexander Vinokourov's positive test for blood doping.

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